Civil Unrest Preparedness – Ultimate Guide

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As you develop your civil unrest preparedness plan, you must consider multiple scenarios. In this guide, we consider all the scenarios with tips to avoid civil unrest and help you react if you are in a violent situation.

Civil Unrest Preparedness
Police officer in riot gear watching a crowd of demonstrators on a city street with fire in the distance

Civil unrest preparedness can take many forms depending on the level of the unrest and where you are. Are you out with your wife for a nice dinner downtown, and suddenly there is a demonstration outside? Do you live on a busy city street, and a riot starts outside your building? Are you driving to a friend’s house, and suddenly protestors surround you? Has a major disaster occurred, and looters are raiding your neighborhood at night?

As you can see, there are many scenarios to consider and prepare for. During my research, I was disappointed that many guides did not consider each of these scenarios. Most focused on some aspects but did not consider that most people travel from home to another location daily.

I have lived through some of these and attended training courses for others. I spent a few days researching each scenario and discussed these with law enforcement and our other contributors for their advice. Below is a guide for each scenario you may find yourself in and our #1 tip to always keep in mind. 


What is Civil Unrest?

Federal Law describes “civil disorder” as “any public disturbance involving acts of violence by assemblages of three or more persons, which causes an immediate danger of or results in damage or injury to the property or person of any other individual (18 USC 232)”. A recent report describes four primary triggers of civil unrest in the United States. These are:

  1. Sporting Events
  2. Parties, Fairs, and Concerts
  3. Reactions to law enforcement actions
  4. Political or economic activities

The report shows that the latter two reasons have surpassed the first two in the past few years. These events are more violent and spread to more than one area or city.

Indeed, civil unrest can mean different things to different people. Some protests, such as strikes that block certain businesses from operating, can be considered civil unrest by business owners. Any large protest where people are gathered can quickly become violent. Large numbers of people give individuals anonymity, and it tends to snowball once violence starts. As we saw in 2020, some protests can start peacefully and escalate into violence across multiple cities.

In addition to demonstrations and protests, after significant disasters, looters take to the streets looking to take advantage of the situation. Law enforcement is spread thin, so they see it as an opportunity.

If a widespread catastrophe occurs, many that are not prepared will become desperate and start to worry about their survival. The unrest will eventually grow to a point where it can’t be controlled or contained. This worst-case scenario is the least likely, but it is something to consider and plan for.

In all these cases, in at least a localized area, it is not normal or safe. Chaos abounds, and your chance of injury or even death is exponentially greater.

Civil Unrest Preparedness Scenarios

We can break down our Civil Unrest Preparedness into three example scenarios.

Away from home

You visit a large city and enjoy dinner downtown when a demonstration outside begins to get violent. You are caught by surprise away from home and find yourself in a civil unrest situation.

Driving

You are caught by surprise while driving and find yourself stuck in your car on a city street with angry protestors.

At Home or Work

You are caught by surprise and hear protestors outside your business, workplace, home, or apartment. You can hear screaming, breaking glass, and smell smoke.

Rule #1 to Prepare for Civil Unrest

Each of these scenarios can have different levels of preparation depending on the threat’s location and level. In the examples, you find yourself in a situation where your safety is unexpectedly a concern.

However, did you notice one common element in all the above scenarios?

You were caught by surprise.

Wherever you were, you were caught by surprise. You did not realize that something like this could happen, and suddenly, your and your family’s safety is threatened.

The number #1 way to be prepared for civil unrest is to avoid it in the first place.

large crowd of demonstrators
You want to avoid this

This may seem trivial, but many people do not have situational awareness. They are looking at their phone, have headphones in their ears, or are just talking with friends, oblivious to their environment.

You don’t have to act paranoid but routinely scan your surroundings. Listen for anything that sounds abnormal. Notice what other people are doing in the distance. 

Did someone just run by the restaurant? Maybe nothing, but now you notice someone else running. Get up and look out front just in case something down the street is causing people to flee.

If you only get one thing from this guide, focus on increasing your situational awareness!

For help, see our full guide on situational awareness training.

How to Avoid Civil Unrest

Large demonstrations and violence tend to occur in larger cities, although they can also occur in smaller towns. If an event occurs near your home, it may be impossible to avoid it. However, you can prepare and be aware of the possibility before it is outside your door. If you live in an apartment building in a large city, leave your apartment and stay with friends or family during the event.

police in a line in riot gear on a city street
If you see this, don’t hang around to see what happens

If you plan to travel, you can check the news for the area you are traveling through. A quick check on Google or Twitter for any large, planned demonstrations, significant court case verdicts, or speeches by political figures will give you insight into areas to avoid. If a protest involves a certain race, and you are not that race, you certainly do not want to travel to that area.

If a significant event is planned, take a different route or delay your trip. Do not be naive and think that nothing wrong can happen.

If you must travel to the area, carefully plan your travel route, and notice the times when the event starts. Many groups will post on Facebook or websites when and where they intend to start the event. Most demonstrations and protests start peacefully during the day, and then if violence occurs, it is later in the day. Do not stay in the area after dark.

5 General Tips for all Scenarios

EDC knives and flashlights on a stump
My EDC when I can’t carry concealed
  1. If local laws allow it, conceal carry a handgun. One of the benefits of concealed carry is the preparation and training before an emergency occurs. See our guide on the best concealed carry handguns to help you choose. Obtain your license and practice with your firearm regularly. Also make sure you have a safe concealed carry holster. Take self-defense classes and understand the scenarios of when you can defend yourself. Your number one priority is to evade and escape. Do not pull your firearm unless it is a last resort and you fear for your life. From mindset to training, see our complete concealed carry guide.
  2. If laws or locations do not allow handguns, carry a knife. Fixed-blade knives are easier to use and quicker to deploy than folding ones, but may not be legal where you are. Carry one of each if firearms are not allowed. Make this part of your EDC (everyday carry), and carry it daily, so it is a habit. Take a self-defense class and learn how to defend yourself in public and at home.
  3. Keep a get-home bag in your vehicle. This should be similar to your bug out bag but focused on getting home. Keep a spare firearm, extra ammo, money, a coat, a tow strap, a flashlight, survival multitool, a paper map and survival compass, and a battery charger/jump start box. A small survival field guide is a good reference. Also, keep a small first aid kit or IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) with you anytime you are away from home. Know how to use it. It could save your or someone else’s life.
  4. Always keep your lawyer’s card with you when you are away from home. If you don’t have a lawyer, get one. Also consider concealed carry insurance. If you are mistakenly arrested for being involved with a demonstration, be courteous and do what law enforcement officers say. They are essentially protecting you and removing you from the event. Ask to speak to your lawyer, and do not agree to any search requests. Many people do not realize that you do not have to give an officer permission to search you, your vehicle, or your home unless they have probable cause or a warrant. Do not confirm or deny any questions that they may ask. When they release you, you leave.
  5. If you are in a self-defense situation and injure someone, immediately call 911 and say, “I was attacked and forced to defend myself.” Give them your name and location and ask for police and an ambulance. Don’t say anything else, and immediately call your lawyer or your concealed carry insurance hotline.
tow strap and jump start box on a stump
A tow strap and a jump start box in your car will get you out of trouble

5 Civil Unrest Safety Tips Away from Home

If you find yourself in an area where a large demonstration or protest is planned, here are some tips to help you prepare.

  1. If you must be in an area where violence could occur, carefully plan your travel route, and notice the times when the event starts. If you can’t leave before the event starts, absolutely do not plan to stay in the area after dark. 
  2. Always have an escape route in mind. Study the area and know where you will go. By understanding the location and activities of the event, you can escape in the opposite direction. Park your vehicle a few blocks away along your escape route so you can leave on foot and then drive away. Consider purchasing a GPS watch and set your parking location as a waypoint. Do not box yourself into an alley or against a fence or buildings.
  3. If you are trying to escape and protesters surround your vehicle, do not attempt to get in and drive through them. They may attack you for trying to leave. If you cannot drive away, plan a secondary location, you can reach on foot. This should be away from the protest and indoors, away from the crowd’s focus. In a larger city, this could be a hotel, for example. Protestors are less likely to loot or burn down hotels blocks away from the event’s focus. Avoid retail stores or government buildings, as they could become a target even if they are away from the central area of focus.
  4. If you fail to identify that a protest is occurring and you are caught by surprise, do not panic. Your number one priority is to get you and your family to safety. If you can blend into the crowd, use it to your advantage. Hold a sign, chant what the crowd is chanting, and head to the edge or back of the crowd and head in the opposite direction. 
  5. Quickly identify if you need to blend in with the crowd. Don’t wear flashy clothes or talk loudly. The intent is not to draw attention. If the crowd is the opposite race from you, do not attempt to mimic them. Immediately duck into any building and look for a way out of the back. If the protestors are moving, it is best to stay indoors until they pass. Again, do not panic. Study the situation, and think, evade, and escape.
opened Individual first aid kit on a stump
A small IFAK will easily fit in your back pocket

5 Civil Unrest Safety Tips while Driving

Plan and note these tips if you must drive to or through a larger city where a large protest or demonstration occurs.

  1. Similarly, to tip one above, plan your route. Understand where the event is taking place and avoid it together. Drive around the city if you can. Extra time is much better than being stuck in your vehicle in the middle of violence.
  2. Have situational awareness and always pay attention to what is ahead of you. Stay focused on the road – not the passengers, the radio, or your phone (this should always be true while driving). If you see a crowd forming or a significant police presence, try to avoid it. Get off the road you are on and turn around. Avoid getting caught in your vehicle with violent protestors all around. If you see a suspicious roadblock ahead, pay attention to the cars going through it. If anything seems off, turn around immediately.
  3. Avoid driving through a crowd. Stay calm, keep the doors locked, and allow them to pass. Usually, they will pass without incident.
  4. If you are stuck in traffic and see violence approaching, review your options and follow the tips above for evading and escaping the crowd. If you can get to a nearby building, get out, lock your car, and escape on foot.
  5. If violence is already upon your vehicle, keep the doors locked and do not antagonize the crowd. They may damage your car but do not invite them to injure you or your passengers. Be ready to defend yourself but do not engage unless it is your last choice and you fear for your life. It is nearly impossible to overcome a large crowd, no matter what kind of firepower you may have.

5 Civil Unrest Safety Tips while at Home

Defending your family in your home is different from the scenarios above. Civil unrest can stem from violent demonstrations and short-term and long-term disasters. We will break it down into urban and rural settings, but there is some overlap here.

people walking through burning cars and debris on a city street
Once it escalates to this, you should be long gone

Urban Home

For example, if you live in an apartment building in a large city, you may be faced with a violent demonstration right outside your door. Here are some tips to prepare for this scenario.

  1. If you live in a crowded urban setting, you should always stay updated on the latest news and events planned for your area. If an event makes you feel uncomfortable, your best option is to leave the area before the event starts. Have a bug out bag ready to go and stay with friends or family.
  2. If an event unexpectedly turns violent, stay inside. The only time you should leave is in case of fire. If a fire occurs, enact your escape plan for a fire. This plan should have a designated meeting place for your family. If you think this has been compromised, have a secondary meeting place that everyone knows. Use the evade and escape tips above.
  3. If someone is attempting to break into your apartment, tell them to leave. Tell them you are armed and will defend yourself if they do not. Most looters are looking to take things and do not want to get hurt. If you fear for your safety, call the police. They are likely to be overwhelmed, but an officer may already be in the building.
  4. If you can and are comfortable with it, purchase a 9mm home defense handgun. As mentioned earlier, take a self-defense class. This is especially important if you live alone in a large city and do not have a firearm.
  5. Have a home defense plan. If you do not have a safe secondary exit, plan a defensive position in your apartment. For example, this could be at the end of a hall in a bedroom. Block the entrance of your apartment with furniture and make it difficult for your attacker to enter your defensive position. Use household items to fill the hall, for example, so they have to climb over them.

Rural Home

Civil unrest arising from a protest or demonstration is less likely to directly affect your home if you live in a house away from a city. It is more likely to affect the areas where you get your food, so this would naturally turn into a driving scenario where you need food or other items.

After a disaster, looters will enter an area looking for opportunities. This happened to my neighborhood after a tornado struck a few years ago. We were without utilities for nearly a week. While the disaster affected many in our area, we were lucky, and it was small enough to be contained and patrolled by law enforcement. We did have the national guard and police present with roadblocks, curfews, and patrols.  The police were from various counties all over the state. If it took that kind of response to control our small area, there is no way there would be enough resources to contain a large disaster, and looters would run rampant.

  1. If civil unrest is affecting a city near you, stay away. This is one reason to have a three-month food supply at home and a long-term survival pantry. If weeks go by and you cannot enter the city, you will not be able to purchase food. Discuss plans with your neighbors. A few neighbors with radios and a plan is a great defense.
  2. If a disaster forces you to evacuate, have a bug out bag ready. Always keep gas in your vehicle. If I am done driving for the day, and my gas tank is below ¾ full, I will stop and fill up on my way home.  By taking these two steps, you will be ready to leave and ahead of the crowd of other people needing to leave. Know where you are headed and have options for opposite directions.
  3. Have a home defense plan. If a looter or burglar knows you are home, they will not attempt to break into your home. If someone tries to break into your home and knows you are there, they are not there to rob you. They are there to harm you. Consider a quick access gun safe for your handguns.
  4. Fortify your home. This can be as simple as installing longer screws in your door hinges and locks and installing door armor. A guard dog is a great deterrent and can alert you to people approaching. Having a safe room where you can defend yourself and surveillance cameras is also a great idea. Keep some home defense firearms with you during uncertain times and know how to use them.
  5. If someone is entering your home forcibly and you have asked them to go away, do not go on the offensive. Identify a defensive position. This should be in your safe room, bedroom, or other room at the end of a hallway. Turn off all the lights and place a bright flashlight on an elevated dresser or bookshelf pointed towards the door. Then, stand in the corner of the room on the opposite side. When the attacker enters the room, they will think you are holding the flashlight. This will allow you to identify the attacker before taking self-defense actions.

Putting it All Together

First and foremost, avoiding civil unrest is the number one priority. If you do this, none of the more difficult actions are necessary. Practice Situational awareness when you are out in public. Don’t act paranoid but try to focus more on your surroundings. Once you pay attention, you’ll increase your chance of noticing dangers before they start. Avoiding trouble and noticing it before you are surprised is the number one way to prepare.

Seneca wrote, “What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and consider every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.”

This wisdom still rings true today. Violent events should not take us by surprise. Stoic principles include visualizing events to help us prepare. Since today’s news travels so fast, there is no excuse not to know that a potentially violent situation could occur. However, if you are surprised, these tips can help you not panic since you have prepared and know what to do. Review our prepper tips guide, our full prepper guide and have a plan to PREPARE.

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Jason has an engineering and problem solving background. He is an avid outdoorsman, survivalist, and competitive shooter. He enjoys researching the best and most practical solutions for the problem at hand, studying stoicism, and finding innovative ways to be prepared.